Most Snowden Documents Concern Current U.S. Military Operations

By Jack Goldsmith
Friday, January 10, 2014, 11:37 AM

One hears that the worst of the Snowden documents (from the perspective of the USG) have not yet been released, and one wonders what that might mean.  Yesterday’s story that “most of the documents he took concerned current military operations” might provide the beginning of an answer (though I expect that another part of the answer is that Snowden took documents concerning even more sensitive and surprising intelligence relationships than have yet been disclosed).  Representatives Rogers and Ruppersberger, referencing a classified DIA report, say that “Snowden stole approximately 1.7 million intelligence files that ‘concern vital operations of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.’”  I would guess that a good number of these 1.7 million files concern the activities of Special Operations Forces.

JSOC has a presence in many dozens of countries, and according to Mark Mazzetti, has in the past been authorized “to kill, capture, and spy in more than a dozen countries.”  Almost all of these activities are unknown to the public.  Last year I wrote, in connection with Mazzetti’s book:

[O]ne wonders . . . about the legitimacy of the secret world of JSOC operations, which on the whole are even less transparent, and have a less settled and public legal basis, than CIA covert actions.  Mazzetti gives us a peek into the world of JSOC, but only a peek.  We know that JSOC operates, in various guises and with various missions, in many dozens of countries.  But we (in the public) don’t really know what they are doing or where.  . . .

Here is a prediction: One day a super-secret and perhaps unacknowledged JSOC operation will make a notorious mistake that will cause the United States awkward embarrassment, and that will lead to a public investigation, far beyond the secret reporting to the Armed Services committees, into JSOC authorities and actions that will not show JSOC in a great light.  I do not make this prediction because I think JSOC is acting illegitimately – I am sure that the lawyers are being careful and that the relevant committees are in the loop.  But history suggests that over time, secret and dangerous operations tend to result in mistakes, blowback, and lots of retrospective hand-wringing about lines of authority, legality, and the like.  The CIA has experienced this quite a lot, and I worry, after reading Mazzetti’s tales about the far flung, aggressive, secret, and ever-expanding JSOC role, that JSOC is due.

I expected that JSOC’s super-secret world might be disclosed in an unfavorable light due to a “notorious mistake,” not due to a massive cache of stolen documents.  But if even a small percentage of the 1.7 million intelligence files concern sensitive JSOC operations and are disclosed, the negative effect on JSOC and its operations could be, to put it mildly, quite significant.